Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Face Veil: Telling it All, Telling it as it Is

This is a very personal account of the face veil and a response to a related blog post by Dr. Nadia El-Awady, and to the laws being passed to ban the face veil. Sharing the experience has been on my mind for a while, but the current debates make it necessary for the world to hear what we niqabis have to say.

The first word I want to say is that niqab is a step that I have taken and then went about my life. I didn’t mean it to define my life. But it is the people that insist on highlighting it over and over again. So what is there behind that veil?

Behind the veil – any kind of veil - is a girl, with all the thoughts, aspirations, emotions and conflicts that this implies. She loves, she hates, she falls, she gets up, and she makes mistakes, sometimes ugly thoughts cross her mind – a normal human being, that is. The same goes for the much debated face veil that has become a favorite topic for European politics and the anthem of anti-oppression champions.

So where did my journey with the niqab start?

A Spiritual Journey

My journey probably started when I started learning how to recite the Quran. Actually, before that. It started when I wanted to take off my headscarf. I talked to my brother about how I felt like I can’t express myself. Something about the veil makes you look solemn whereas at that time I had gone all the way up the ladder of metal music and liked curly hair and other associated looks. I didn’t feel like the headscarf really represented who I am.

Looking back at it now, I know boys must have been part of my thought, but still, I wanted to be known by who I am.

My brother talked me out of the idea and I continued to wear it. But then on a separate note, I set out to learn my religion. I learnt that Fajr, or dawn, prayer is actually prayed, well, at dawn and not any time you wake up. I started keeping it and learning to recite the Quran properly, increasingly keeping prayers on time and reciting a small bit of Quran everyday. That was when I was in high school. I went on taking small steps, gradually adding voluntary acts of worship, building my very intimate relationship with God and the Quran, and seeing the reflections of this in my life.

It also reflected on my outward look as more and more I would feel like I want to don more decent, looser outfit, and a larger veil rather than the small one tuck around my head. These steps came from inside me and so I felt comfortable doing them, unlike when they are dictated or incited by someone.

In college, my character and faith were taking further shape. I was becoming more open to life, more positive in many ways, and more able to make choices about what I want. I could see how that relationship with God was reflecting on my daily life. When I do something good, the world seems to work to my advantage. When I do something bad, I am ticked off to go back to the right direction.

Just like I took the many previous steps inwardly and outwardly, thoughts about the niqab were starting to tinkle in my mind. I would try to shut them off - knowing that it is very uncommon in my surroundings, and that my parents would utterly reject it – but it was not for long that this worked.

A Significant Verse and Moment

In the end, I couldn’t silence that voice inside me but started praying istikhara (a prayer you do when you are confused about a choice to make). There was a verse in the Quran that – although apparently not having anything to do with the veil – had to do with the face, and whenever I read it, thoughts of the face veil came to my mind. It was a meaning that I had assigned to that verse in my own mind. So every time I prayed istikhara, I would stumble upon this verse by any chance: turning TV channels, reciting my daily werd (quota of the Quran), just by any chance.

Eventually, on a Ramadan night in my third year of university I prayed istikhara one more time about whether God thinks it right for me to don the niqab. I did not assume that it was better. Something inside me strongly called me to wear it and I was becoming increasingly shy about my face but my mind was telling me that maybe you can do better not wearing it, even serve your religion better, and that it was against everything you were raised to or thought before. I truly wanted guidance on what was better for me as in God’s eternal knowledge.

I thought to myself that I will finish the prayer and read my usual werd, and if I meet the verse – which I was not sure then in which chapter it was – then that is a sign that God wants me to wear it. But still I thought no,no,no, I can’t think that way. I recited my Quran, and met nothing. I kept turning a few pages after to see if I meet the verse, still nothing. Then the moment I closed The Book, my mother was praying outside, reciting the exact same verse I was thinking about!!!!!

That incident was significant in many ways. First: some Entity out there knew what I was thinking and responded to it. And that Entity did not respond in the way I wanted – because I know of all these theories about how the mind can bring on certain reactions from the so called universe. He responded in a way that was according to His Will and prior Knowledge that I will pray on that specific night - because we recite the 30 parts of the Quran along the 30 days of Ramadan specifically, and so that verse was read in that particular moment of that particular day of that particular month according to some knowledge. And it had meaning in other ways too, as my Mom – after waging war on me that night – would later be the one to defend my right to choose it and support me in many ways despite disliking it (a very special Mom to this, I have to say).

Reactions to the Face Veil

Well, reactions to my face veil varied. My family was outraged when I first brought up the idea that night. They were like, you should stay at home better, you are shutting yourself up from the world and hints were made about how will a person ever propose to me without seeing me?

Three years after I wore it, in my wedding, my sister still thought I might consider taking it off. My aunt talked me into how it is not obligatory almost every time I visited her – I never said it was obligatory to start with, but that was the discussion I was always forced into. I knew they loved me, though, and that made things easier for all of us.

Four years after my wearing it now they’ve learned to accept it. Lately, a certain situation happened when I got cornered and had to show my face to a male employee. I was surprised to see my Dad and brother - who could hardly live with the idea of the face veil – defend my right to an arrangement that doesn’t violate my right to wear it. It made me so proud of them.

On the streets, people were sometimes vulgar. A sick person is a sick person, no matter what you wear. Some girls do hide behind the veil to do undesired things. But for the major part, people respected you as long as you respected yourself.

Average Egyptian women usually had some kind of a prejudice or presumption that was hard to get over whenever they saw you wore a veil. It was a combination of social presumption, and an anticipation of an underlying attack against them, especially if they were not wearing a headscarf.

Whenever I had to use the subway, I would always worry about the sensation I get the moment I get into the cart: that people perceived me as hostile assuming that I must think each one of them should wear the veil – which was not true. I would comfort myself thinking that situations always come up and people will know you are good. And situations always came up: a small gesture of help or communication always helps you get through.

The part I liked most was Westerners’ reaction to the face veil. Foreigners also had their misconceptions but the moment they heard you talk, they were open to interpret you according to what they hear. This is in contrast to Egyptians who interpreted you against a background of their own culture. Foreigners were forced to question all their beliefs as they see you talk, interact, and laugh. They see that you are not oppressed, you are educated, your Dad and brother are obviously not behind your back watching where you go or who talk to. Their preconceptions were dashed and they were bedazzled, which was usually good for a start.

The Essence of Communication

A comment I have to say here is that the experience brought me back to the essence of communication. How do you know a person? I mean, really know them? Is it the face, looks, words, or actual dealing along a period of time and maybe across different circumstances too? These are all levels of communication and only the last one is the one that leads to honest judgment in my view. Our modern cultures are increasingly becoming based on sales and marketing mentality of impressions and looks. Yet whenever I worried about people’s reactions to some decisions I made, I took the issue to its origin: in time they will know me and know why I did this. But sometimes people just don’t want to give themselves that chance to actually know the person, not judge them by their looks.

Another fact that I learned is that communication is actually greatly affected by the negative or positive energy on the person’s side. One girl once told me that her boss’s wife wore a face veil and whenever she talked to her, she felt like there was this barrier. “But I don’t feel this barrier with you”, she said. And many people told me similar things. I think the secret is that inside me, I place no barrier and I do not assume that people will not accept me. Sometimes it is us who place the barriers and then complain that people do not accept us, and it is only natural for them not to.

For another part, don’t we deal with people on e-mails and the internet, people that we have never seen their faces or known their lives? But we deal with them and talk to them and try to understand their minds. Can’t we do the same thing with a woman wearing a veil? Besides, people always can tell who I am - by my size and the type of dress - and whether I am smiling, frowning or even making a face because your eyes and your body language reflect it.

Feminist in Disguise

I have always been a feminist in some way. There is a wide range inside feminist movement but what matters is here is my a desire for men to know me by who I am, the person I am, not my looks.

At one point I believed that this was almost impossible: a man will always see you as a woman. My religious journey went on a separate path. But my niqab closed the circle in an unexpected way. When I wore it, I didn’t plan to stop communicating with people, specifically men. I meant to be who I am as I always was.

Surprisingly enough, when I dealt with men, they respected me more and gave me a chance to be seen as “the person” I am, “the mind” I am and not the look. They were forced to respect me for who I am. It was what I wanted all along, only found through a way that was opposite the normally assumed direction in our times - of revealing more rather than covering more.

I won’t say that there was not curiosity on their side in some instances, but curiosity gives way to character eventually. And I tell you this, a man may be curious about a woman with a veil, but he will not love her and she will not be unforgettable to him if he hasn’t seen her.

So as a Final Note

For all the politicians and the advocates of banning the face veil as a way of liberation, I tell you, that my face veil has liberated me more than you think. The time when I felt most oppressed in my life were the three years during which my parents refused to let me express who I am and wear it. Lately when I found myself in a situation where I was compelled to take it off, I felt like someone was ripping me of clothes, of my dignity, of something that I chose to make private. It was painful and humiliating.

As a woman, I refuse to be judged solely based on what I wear. If I were a woman who dressed like the average European woman, I would still be offended by the thought that I am judged based on my outfit. Such judgment based is limited and undermining to me in all cases. If you want to encourage that view of women, go ahead banning the veil.

Even more, you tell me that some people are not comfortable talking to a woman with a face veil. In other words, you are telling me to condition myself on people’s “perception” of what is comfortable to them and what is not. Well, I am not comfortable talking to a woman wearing too much make up or too little clothing, does that mean I will give them rules on what to wear?

This is not to say that some people are not forced to wear the face veil: Yes, some are. And they are oppressed because of ignorance rather than any other reason. So if you want to help, alleviate the poverty and ignorance - especially about religion- that bring oppression to women.

But niqabis are as varied as the rainbow colors. Some were forced to wear niqab, but most of the girls I know had to fight for it. Others take the opinion that it is obligatory, so denying them that right is a way of infringing on their religious freedom. Just like I am trying to avoid generalizing, I hope we would not be treated as a monolithic bunch.

Besides, all societies exert a pressure of some sort on girls – and boys – be it to wear make up, or dress according to certain dress codes. So why are you addressing this specific instance with such rigidity?

The security argument is also easy to get over. Provide a woman where you want security and you have our identity fully detected.

To the French MPs and their supporters: Stop these false claims. Stop your undercover racism.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Dawn of Islam

This is an image that I love so much. Took it in sixth of October. Friends on facebook will know that it’s my profile picture. Believe me, when I took it, I didn’t know that I’ll love it so much.

But look at the mosque in the shade. The current darkness we feel. But the sun behind tells of a sunrise to come. It is strongly there at the background. And the mosque despite being dark, its minaret stands tall. To me, this is the current state of Islam. It stands tall despite the dark ages in which Muslims live.

Autumn in… Alexandria!

Alexandria, in October at 7 am, by the sea. No one is around except old people exercising, few people jogging, one cycler and a few cars every now and then on the street.

Oh, I love Alex in Autumn. Always have always will. It is warm, sunny sometimes raining yet so warm.

I thought it was just one time that I did love Alex, but looking out that window I’m back to my first love. The wide open sky and sea, no boundaries no apartment blocks, no pollution.

I could leave everything behind now. No worries, no man, no work. Wonderful! I need this silence every once in a while. Need the world to leave me alone and to stay away from the hassle.

Take one step in the street and you’re in the heart of the city/ Go to the beach and you forget the world. That’s the unique thing about Alex. This dichotomy. It is not like Sharm el Sheikh with its mega shopping, beach and nightlife. And although Sharm is great in the winter too, I like Alex better.

And it had a surprise for me this time. Wild pigeons. I love pigeons, and it was always a shame that you never see them flying or on the streets in Cairo. I always used to see them close in footage of Mecca and Italy and dream that I could be that close. It was amazing, their greenish grey was beautiful. I wish I had the cam with me, didn't occur to me to use the phone cam either. It was just wonderful being around them.

It was just the weekend, but a perfect one. Weather was great, met nice people - it was a group trip, was able to separate myself and work when I needed to, Costa Coffee was 5 minutes away and so internet available – I definitely wasn’t gonna pay 77 LE per hour at the hotel! –, I was staying alone in a room – also great for a person like me who likes to be left alone sometimes.

This was a short-lived yet much needed break.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008



بحب اللون الأزرق – مش عشان هو لون مشترك دايما فى لوحات الموزايك : ) – لكن عشان فعلا باتعايش معاه فى كل أحوالى. زعلانة يبقى أزرق غامق ، رايقة و هادية يبقى أزرق سماوى مجنونة يبقى أزرق زهرى منور!

بحب الجينز اليوزد و الباجى من زمان قوى من قبل ما يبقى موضة. و لسه بحبه مع انها مش حاجة مناسبة أبدا فى الأوساط المتدينة – أو بمعنى أصح الصورة المرسومة للشخص المتدين. مش عارفة هو أنا اللى نص متدينة و لا هما اللى مزودينها.

بمناسبة الأوساط المتدينة – بحب الإسلام أكتر مما يتصور الناس. الإسلام بجد - مش اللى سيطر عليه مجموعات من الناس و افتكروا انهم ملكوا الدين و بعدين بدأوا يعادوا بعض و يشتموا بعض و يكفروا بعض عشان السلطة و الزعامة جوه البلد و براها .

بس بحب مصر كمان قوى. و دى حاجة كان ممكن أبقى مكسوفة أقولها زمان. أصل الموضة السب فى البلد اليومين دول. الحقيقة انه اللى يسمع الأخبار صعب يقول انه بيحب البلد. و أنا من أول الناس اللى دايما يتريقوا على حاجات فى المصريين. بس أنا اكتشفت من كام سنة ان أنا فعلا بحبها. و شايفة فى ناسها حاجات أحسن من البلاوى اللى بتطلع منهم. و مبسوطة انى هنا مش فى أى مكان تانى.

لكن بحبها من غير تعصب. و من غير وهم انها أحلى مكان فى الكون و المصريين أحسن ناس. هى أحلى مكان بالنسبة لى و فيها ميزات و عيوب زى أى مكان تانى. و أنا أكيد عاوزاها تبقى أحسن.

أنا حبيت أقول الكلمتين دول فى أول المدونة عشان كان نفسى أصلا أسميها حاجة عن مصر لولا انى ناوية أكتب فيها عن حاجات كتير. و عشان مش معنى انى متدينة انى أشتم فى البلد و أكرهها.

و الكلمتين دول اللى قالهم منير – بغض النظر عن انهم كانوا بمناسبة تمثيلية الانتخابات – بيعجبونى

يا حبيبتى يا أم الدنيا يا أغلى الأوطان
مين ده اللى يقدر يوصل بيكى لبر أمان
و يعدى بيكى على بكرة غير الشجعان

و أنا بقى مستنية بكرة ده و هحاول أبقى من الشجعان...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Viva A7matia!

My brother’s birthday was yesterday. We met in the morning and I was so consumed in my plans that I totally forgot that it’s his birthday. Well, I have to admit that – being the Islamist that I’ve become – I don’t really celebrate birthdays now. But, well, I should still be a considerate Islamist, I could have at least said happy birthday, given him a small wish. Eventually I was overwhelmed with shame when he came home late at night with the cake!!! Gush!

So as a tribute to my brother, I’m gonna say a couple of words that I had on my mind for some time. My relationship with my brother has gone through different stages. When we fought we usually had the worst fight, yet we were mostly friends. We were always partners in crime – from tricks on the family to his smoking experiments as a young kid, and his sneaking out of school some days and his traveling in college. As you can see, the secrets were mostly his, and I was mostly the silent collaborator.

And you know what, years later now, it is mostly the same. I’m way different from before, and we have very different lifestyles. But still so close and so much the same, as I see it. He’d still come and tell me all his stories about his travels, the fun, the fights, even some of his 'classified' information. And I’d still listen all the same. Few times I play the wise one, but most of the times I just enjoy the amusement of new stories.

I’ll even tell you a secret. Half the books I read, it was him who recommended them. It’s true that I end up studying them so well, and he just flips through them quickly but I still owe him a lot. I owe him a lot more than that actually. He has always been my window to the world – sometimes the crime world but it doesn’t matter : ) . He’d always see things from a side that I never saw.

I’m a big girl in the world now with big stuff in my head, but, hey, A7matia, thought I might tell you, great having you around, man!


الحياة موزايك. فسيفساء من حاجات صغيرة قوى. قطع منسية و مرمية استحالة تفكر انها ممكن تعمل صورة. بس حطهم جنب بعض يطلعلك أجمل منظر.

المدونة دى هتبقى موزايك. حاجات بحبها و أفكار بفكر فيها.

حياتى هى كمان موزايك. تجارب و أوقات مش مفهومة بس مش عارفة ازاى أنا حاسة انى فاهماها. لما أبُصّلهم جنب بعض أحس انى مبسوطة الحمد لله. ده ما يمنعش من شوية أجزاء مكسرة لكن الصورة أحلى بيها. من غيرها تبقى مش حياتى و مش أنا.

شخصيتى أكيد موزايك. جوانب ما تركبش مع بعض. لكن شايفاهم شغالين مع الناس و مش عارفة أشوفهم فى أى ترتيبة تانية.

و هى دى الدنيا مع كل الناس. فهنحب الأجزاء اللى ماحدش شايفها و هنحب قلب الرسمة و هنحب الصور اللى فى حياتنا بتفانينها الرائعة و خرابيشها الصغيرة. و هنحب بعض.

Mosaic Girl

Some people don’t like mosaics, but I do. They remind me of life. These small pieces that make up a big work of art. They seem so irrelevant and meaningless on their own. Place them side by side, and they paint a wonderful picture.

I mean this blog to be a mosaic. My different interests and thoughts and readings.

My life is also a mosaic. Tiny incidents and experiences that by some strange miracle make sense to me. They gather together and make up a picture that Alhamdulillah – thank God – I’m satisfied with. Regardless of the broken pieces, I love the picture and my life.

My character is definitely a mosaic. Different sides that seem at odds, hard to place together. But they seem to work for people. And I know my small pieces couldn’t be in a better arrangement.

And it is that way for everyone, so love your small hidden pieces, your central pieces, the lovely picture that you make up, and the pictures that make up life with all the masterpieces and the flawed pieces. And love all.

P.S. I will make postings in Arabic and English insha`Allah. The ‘central pieces’ I plan to post in both Arabic and English. But I make no promise that they will be copies of each other. I give myself the freedom to change and give you the freedom to follow the one you like.